Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Cockles of My Heart

Seashells in their habitats tend to come in pairs. The creatures that make use of this kind of outer body, invertebrates all, like clams and mollusks, belong to the biological class called Bivalvia. Our word “valve” comes from there and originally meant, in Latin, a section of a revolving door. Bivalvia dates to the seventeenth century and means “halves of a hinged shell” (Online Etymology Dictionary (OED)). What happens when clams shuffle off this mortal coil is that the hinge eventually breaks; what we then collect on the seashore are the halves, not the whole.

The most likely origin of the phrase, “that warms the cockles of my heart,” originated in 1660 per OED. “Cockle,” as a synonym for “shell,” has lost currency if you ask Google’s Ngram facility, which tracks words used in writing in the 1800-2000 period: it was used nearly seven times more frequently in 1809 than in 2000, and even in old times, “shell” was much more popular. Nonetheless, we still have that song, Molly Malone:

In Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

The legend of Molly Malone, who died young of a fever, produced the belief that such a lass actually lived once in the seventeenth century. Scholars demur, but the Dublin Millennium Commission opted for reality, at least that of the heart. It proclaimed that a real Mary Malone, who died on June 13, 1699, had been the original—and declared June 13 as Molly Malone Day—and we’d say Cockles and Mussels Day. Mussels are yet another kind of shellfish. And as for Molly, I owe that to Brigitte—who started to sing the song as I was reading the first version of this post to her.

Cockle comes to us from Old French, coquille , Shell from Old English sciell—and the predominance of “shell” is probably due to the fact that eggs are much more commonly consumed than mollusks.

The image I am showing, depicting the Giant Atlantic Cockle, photographed by Andrea Westmoreland (link), makes it plain how the bivalve creatures resemble the heart shape. The next question then becomes, what does warmth have to do with these cockles? Turns out that closed shells, when heated, begin to open. Therefore whatever “warms the cockles of my heart” causes my heart to open in sympathy and in approval.

The inspiration for this post? Last night late I spread a minute amount of Smucker peanut butter on a single Trisket and took it to Brigitte. She’d said that she was getting cold. “Something to warm the cockles of your heart,” I said, handing her this tiny snack. And then got to wondering about those cockles.


  1. Remember our conversation re "deontology vs consequentialism"? What warmed me while I shivered
    last night was not the trisket with a dab of peanut butter that you offered me, though I love those; no, rather what warmed my heart AND body were the words with which you offered the morsel. Words and actions, both then may have consequences?

  2. This is an interesting discussion, and your explanation is very plausible. Thanks


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